KIRAN RAO’s first film feels like one. The director provided with a sophisticated technical crew, still wants to explore the kind of ideas that initiate you into the love for cinema. And a city. Rao’s themes of an artist’s temperament and demons, social divides that create unpredictable tensions between characters and the quiet, unseen tragedies that nestle in the folds of brightly lit big cities are staples of “critically acclaimed” films. The film does not look for new ways to interpret or tell these stories. It is assembled as a montage and pinned together by handheld shots of moments that romanticise the rain or dramatise the sea.
The slim story that revolves around a painter Arun, an NRI photographer/banker Shai, a dhobi/rat-killer Munna and a young small-town housewife Yasmeen, is less an ode to Mumbai than an ode to a first crush on it. Mumbai as a city finds its way into the lives of all its residents. It is impossible to remain untouched by the city, no matter how fortified your island. And the touch is not always gentle or nurturing. This sense is entirely missing from the film. From Rao’s conditioned lens the darkest bylanes of the old city look benign and antiseptically fascinating. Munna fixes the leak in his slum hut as the rain lashes at him, he smashes rats to pulp for a living and loses his brother in a gang war, yet the film cannot make you feel the nervous anxiety of travelling with Mumbai every day. The city does not hide behind facades — it is naked, unabashed, overwhelming, and if you love it, you love it despite itself.
ASSEMBLED AS A MONTAGE, IT IS PINNED TOGETHER BY HANDHELD SHOTS OF THE RAIN OR THE SEA
The idea of Mumbai is almost impossible to grasp, even for the most ardent devotee and it is certainly not encapsulated in the sweet, exotic characters who inhabit Irani Cafés and Ramzaan markets in this film. Rao’s Mumbai looks like the city as seen by her two upper-class characters — Shai and Arun. Rao’s portrait of the middle class and poor is how Arun, Shai and she imagine the other, and that is woefully apparent. You are never watching the film from a rat-killer’s perspective — you are watching the rat-killer from the perspective of one who has come to seek a new diversion from wine-soaked parties. The reason one would still recommend this film is inspired, assured performances by Aamir Khan and Prateik Babbar. And the fleeting moments of beauty that characterise a first crush, the nostalgia that transforms a difficult city into a museum of innocence.
Originally published in Tehelka.